Book notes

President Barack Obama presents a National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth during a ceremony in the White House on March 2, 2011. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo.

Philip Roth

I was saddened to hear this morning about the death of Philip Roth yesterday. Roth was among the last of the great writers who defined the American experience of the second half of the twentieth century. I confess I’m no Roth completist, but certainly Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint were among the significant reading experiences of my youth; I also admired his Zuckerman books and his memoirs, and when I read Nemesis, his moving final novel, a few years ago, I noted no falling off of his powers. Also, in 1971, Roth published Our Gang, a Swiftian satire of Richard Nixon which ended with our most disgraced president (to date) running against Satan for the post of Devil in Hell. And this, two years before Watergate broke.

Roth has been in the news since 2016 for his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, an alternate history that explores what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh had won the 1940 presidential election and led America down the path to totalitarianism. (President Donald Trump is apparently making America read again — The Plot Against America, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and George Orwell’s 1984 have been enjoying a resurgence of popularity over the past few years.) But Roth didn’t consider himself a prophet, comparing Lindbergh to Trump in a New York Times interview last January:

However prescient The Plot Against America might seem to you, there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.

If only we still had Roth with us to write a sequel to Our Gang. We could sure use one.

Roth will be missed. The Guardian has this obituary by Eric Homberger and this appreciation by Richard Lea.

Ernest Hemingway

In anticipation of a trip to Paris next month, I’ve been reading A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously-published memoir of his early days in the City of Light in the 1920s. If you haven’t gone back to Hemingway in a while, I recommend picking up The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast; his plain style is still a palate-cleansing relief these days.

I never particularly liked the work of Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway manages to put his finger on why. “When I had come back from trips that I had made to the different political conferences or to the Near East or Germany for the Canadian paper and the news services that I worked for she wanted me to tell her about all the amusing details,” Hemingway writes. “She wanted to know the gay part of how the world was going; never the real, never the bad.” Later, after Stein has called Hemingway and his compatriots a “lost generation” (the phrase that will live in immortal infamy), Hemingway turns this around in his head on the walk home, thinking of the suffering that he and his fellow veterans had seen in the Great War, especially after Stein has berated a garage mechanic. “She had some ignition trouble with the old Model T Ford she then drove and the young man who worked in the garage and had served in the last year of the war had not been adept, or perhaps had not broken the priority of other vehicles, in repairing Miss Stein’s Ford,” Hemingway writes.

But that night walking home I thought about the boy in the garage and if he had ever been hauled in one of those vehicles when they were converted to ambulances. … I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation? … I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be. … The hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels.

From the archives: “I think this is a shattered time”

William Gaddis. Photograph by William Gass.

As I follow the rather discouraging headlines, I’m reading (among other things, not least the Gospel of Luke, most suitable for these times with its emphasis on the poor, the marginalized, and the sick) Kenneth Paul Kramer’s Redeeming Time, a book-length study of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Last year on May 1 I published the below post, which touches on Eliot’s poem and Gaddis’s pessimism, suggestive of my own, I suppose.


From an interview with William Gaddis, conducted by Christopher Walker and published in the Observer on February 27, 1994:

The Fifties was a fragmented time and I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style. … [T.S. Eliot’s] “East Coker” condenses everything I am trying to say in about 20 lines:

a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating …

I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention. There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbor that silly notion that things might get better. …

I see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of something. … I don’t know what. My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.

From Paul Griffiths’ review of The Letters of William Gaddis, published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 12, 2013:

Gaddis was always good at pessimism (“I’ve got rid of most of the despair & am now just desperate”), but he could have added — and implicitly in these letters often does — that we are distinguished also by our ability to protest, to parody, to frustrate the pattern and, in a word, to live, “every, every moment,” to add another of his favorite quotations, from Thornton Wilder. As he wrote to his daughter, “damnedest thing is people saying I’m negative whereas it’s these affirmations of life amidst its appalling uncertainties and setbacks that I most admire.”

No smoking guns

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m in the midst of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, his history of the past six or seven years in Russian, European, and American politics and a warning about the decay of the rule of law. I’ve still got about half of the book to go, but in the meantime, Snyder discussed the broad outlines of his research at a Politics and Prose event in Washington, DC, on April 7. As Snyder notes — and amply demonstrates — the very idea that there will be any “smoking gun” definitively linking Trump to Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign is quite nice to think about but quite unlikely; and, more to the point, that deliberate collusion in a legal sense may be impossible to prove. Which isn’t to say that Trump and his campaign were not guilty of it in a practical and especially moral and ethical sense. I’ll write more about the book shortly.

Snyder speaks tonight in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 7.00pm; he returns to New York for a presentation at the Ukrainian Museum on April 22. If you can’t make it, enjoy the below video from the April 7 event. And I recommend you have a glass of wine or beer nearby — and additional bottles at hand. It may be the most important and sobering video you watch for a while (hence that booze) .